in performance: deadstring brothers

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kurt marschke of deadstring brothers.

“We’re used to people standing, dancing and throwing stuff at us,” remarked Kurt Marschke with a tinge of disappointment in his voice last night to the sedate and seated crowd that turned out for his Nashville trio Deadstring Brothers at Willie’s Locally Known.

You would think Marschke would have welcomed the listening room environment, especially given the sort of patiently paced and convincingly emotive country yarns that make up the newest Deadstring album, Cannery Row. But having seemingly measured up the mood of the crowd before him, the singer/guitarist politely said he would adjust to the feel of the room in “about 30 minutes.”

Two songs later into the set (which, by the way, barely lasted 75 minutes), the trio kicked into a roadhouse-friendly version of Leon Russell’s You Look Like the Devil. But the overall performance ultimately felt like one long warm-up, the work of potent band operating at underachiever level

Much of the problem dealt with repertoire. Marschke has issued five albums under the Deadstring Brothers banner, each a modest of gem of boozy, roots-conscious charm infused with varying degrees of country soul. And there was a nice smattering of tunes from those recordings, from the rustic Sacred Heart (from 2006’s Starving Winter Report), which Marschke colored with wiry accents of slide guitar and harmonica, to the steel guitar-fortified encore of Lucille’s Honky Tonk (off of Cannery Row). But there was an unusually heavy reliance on cover material. Some of it has been featured on Deadstring albums (The Band’s Get Up Jake and the aforementioned Russell tune). But a lot hasn’t – including country fare from Delbert McClinton and Rodney Crowell, along with a trio of Merle Haggard favorites.

Marschke, bassist J.D. Mack and drummer Nathan Kalish juggled such jukebox duties admirably, especially Marschke’s champion guitar picking during the Haggard medley and the Crowell staple Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This. But why sell yourself short as a songwriter by ignoring an arsenal of well-crafted originals in favor of capable but hardly distinctive covers?

Plus, there was simply a laziness to the show that was irksome. It was more the product of attitude than actual musical involvement. Marschke mentioned several times from the stage that the trio was “going out” after the show. That seemed like innocent enough commentary at first. But when Mack gave the nod to “wrap things up” shortly after the set passed the one hour mark, one started to sense the Deadstring crew was more anxious to engage in a Saturday night of its own making than the one it was already booked for.

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